The Kindness of Strangers

The day I learned a life lesson from a better man than myself

It's a pet peeve of mine—and, more than likely, yours as well. You're entering a convenience store and stop to hold the door open for someone. They walk right past you without so much as a nod or a thank you. Sometimes, they even look you in the eye, as if to acknowledge your lowly place beneath them in life. Sucker. In less than a second, you go from being a caring fellow passenger on this beautiful spinning blue marble of brotherhood where spreading the love strikes up a warm, fuzzy chorus of "Kumbaya" inside your heart, to wanting to slam that entitled ingrate's filthy head in the door, like Joe Pesci to Frank Vincent in "Raging Bull."

Not so long ago, I was at a Wawa, holding said door for said ingrate. The bastard was even several feet away while I stood there with the door stretched open for several seconds as he took his good old time waltzing in. Then, without a word, he looked down his nose at me with what I read to be a smug smirk on his face and plodded into the store, leaving me in the thankless wake of his glorious presence. I could tell he was a "non-thank-you-er" halfway through and a switch went off inside of me. I let the big aluminum door swing shut on him just in time for it to clip his elbow. It hit him square in the funnybone and he winced. I knew it hurt and I was infused with immediate satisfaction. When he scowled at me and said, "What the fuck?", my witty retort as I went on my way was, "Oh, NOW you can talk."

It was such a gratifying moment for me that I even recounted the story on Facebook for others to feel the same infusion of karma. But that's not what this story is about. In fact, quite the opposite. It is about a lesson learned to me by a better man than myself.

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I was at a holiday party for the Writer's Guild in Los Angeles, when I wandered up to a group of young writers gathered around a slight, unassuming older gentleman with two Best Screenplay Oscars to his name. His name was Alvin Sargent and you may know his work: "Paper Moon," "Julia," "Ordinary People," to name just a few. The young writers were in awe of him, and after learning of his identity, so was I.

He was a shy man, mostly listening, not nearly as lofty as his accomplishments. Someone asked him just how many screenplays he had written and his answer was—to me, anyway—surprisingly low for his age and career.

"Twenty," he replied, and he was being humble.

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I began secretly feeling a little puffed-up in the chest, knowing that I was half his age and had already written about 16 screenplays myself. Then, before I could feel too good, comparing myself to an Academy Award-winning writer, someone else asked him how many of those had been produced—which, as any writer will tell you, being "produced" is everything. He just sort of shrugged and, with a self-conscious smile, said, "All of them."

Boom! Whatever inner ego I'd had dropped from my chest to about my knees. I had only sold one out of the 16 so far. Then he added, "And 50 teleplays." Boom again! This time, my self-importance was lying flat on the floor, trying not to be stepped on.

I've included this anecdote here because I thought it important to give you a little glimpse of the successful, yet humble individual who gave me a wonderful life lesson. When the topic switched to "pet peeves," I chimed in with my thankless-holding-the-door-open irk, when Alvin looked up and said, "Well, then you have strings attached."

"I have what?" I asked, sincerely not getting his meaning.

"I'm sorry," he said sheepishly. "I shouldn't say that."

I told him, "No, no, don't be silly. Please don't apologize, it's fine."

Then, after I thought about it for a moment, I thanked him and told him he was absolutely right. What he was telling me was that I (we) should do kind things purely out of kindness itself, without measure, and without expecting the reward of a "thank you" in return for our doing charitable deeds. I was giving—with strings attached.

If we have goodness to share, would it matter either way whether we receive an exchange of gratitude? Does kindness have rules? Why is it so difficult to be nice simply for the sake of being nice, and that act of selflessness being in and of itself its own reward? We so often live our lives on "conditions," which a wiser man knows does not make us happier. If anything, it ultimately lessens our joy.

Now, to be perfectly honest with you, I've more than once forgotten Alvin's beautiful lesson, including the aforementioned Wawa story which happened years after my meeting the WTF man. I still catch myself mumbling "you're welcome" under my breath and sometimes not so under my breath. Because it's hard not to feel, at the very least, disappointed in our fellow man when the rudest of us cannot acknowledge a benevolent act with a "please" or "thank you." No one wants to be anyone's doormat. It's at these times that I try and stop myself and think, OK, maybe that person is having a shitty day, or just lost a loved one and their mind is someplace else, and perhaps if I walked a mile in their shoes.

But Alvin's "strings attached" line is always in the back of my mind. The older I get, the more I remember to drag it out and heed its sentiment, and the more I try to give without measure. It really is a beautiful lesson, and I thank Mr. Sargent—not that he'd expect thanks in return.

Tags: kindness